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From Ad Exec to ‘Aquanaut’: Second Act

By Susan J. Wells

  • PUBLISHED April 05
  • |

The genesis of Jim Elliott’s second act began not in the water as you might expect, but on a ski slope. An avid skier as well as scuba diver since college, the Chicago media advertising executive was a volunteer downhill ski instructor for the blind in his spare time. 

Moved by the positive impact learning to ski had on his students, he began contemplating an encore career with greater personal meaning: helping more people with disabilities experience a similar transformation. But instead of focusing on ski slopes, he thought about therapeutic scuba diving. 

“I knew that if skiing could turn a life around to the degree that it did,” Elliott says, “the forgiving, gravity-free activity of scuba diving could do the same, or even more, for people with all types of disabilities.”

Floating a New Idea

Acting on that epiphany didn’t happen right away, however.

For more than 20 years, diving took a backseat to building a family and a career. It wasn’t until after his children were grown that Elliott decided the time was right to make his idea a reality. In 1997, he left his job to teach diving instruction and form a nonprofit, swapping a stable annual salary for the promise of a full-time volunteer pursuit. 

At first, he used scuba gear he’d acquired over time and worked out of his grandmother’s house, where he lived as her caregiver. “We started very slowly,” he recalls, “holding programs at community pools and local quarries that were redeveloped as dive sites during the summer.”

But from those humble beginnings, the launch of a formal nonprofit quickly took shape. Through a combination of personal savings, careful management of assets and successful leveraging of longtime relationships built during his media career, Elliott founded Downers Grove, Ill.-based Diveheart in 2001. He was 44 at the time.

A friend’s law firm did the 501(c) 3 incorporation and trademark work pro bono. “Once I could raise money as a nonprofit, we were off to the races,” he says. Donations, mostly from personal appeals and event fundraisers, mounted as word spread. 

To keep costs low, the work is largely volunteer-driven and takes place in oceans, lakes, community pools, recreation or rehab centers, high schools, hotels or hospitals. Since its inception, the organization has trained thousands of volunteers as instructors, supporting its mission of building confidence and independence in children, adults and veterans with disabilities and providing services in cities across the United States, Australia, the Caribbean, China, Israel, Mexico, Malaysia and more.
Years of networking know-how also helped along the way. For example, many of Elliott’s former business contacts regularly donate ongoing legal services, reduced office/warehouse rent, free vehicle maintenance and airline frequent flyer miles. 

While Elliott doesn’t draw a salary, and donates all his training income to Diveheart, he fortunately was a diligent saver during his first career. So he’s been able to supplement his income with a portion of his nest egg. 

“It was very difficult to leave a six-figure income to become a volunteer,” he admits, “but now I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Expanding the Reach

More recently, the nonprofit created a first-of-its-kind adaptive diver and instructor program, which establishes best practices in the field and pioneers new techniques. Such achievements have led to several grants, as well as partnerships doing scuba therapy research with university medical centers, hospitals and rehabilitation institutes. 

On Elliott’s wish list for the future is development of a multimillion-dollar facility encompassing a deep warm water therapy pool complex—to serve as a destination for scuba-related research, therapy, rehab, education and vocational training.

He knows it’s a big goal.

“People with disabilities are often told that they can’t do the same things their able-bodied peers can do. But underwater, they’re equal,” says Elliott. “That—not a paycheck—is what drives me. It’s what makes me excited to start every day.”

Susan J. Wells is a freelance business journalist who writes regularly for Kiplinger’s custom content team. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, American City Business Journals, HR Magazine and many other digital, print and brand media.

Are you inspired to make a difference? Learn 8 steps to joining the gig economy

Read more of our Second Act Series in From Scientist to Social Entrepreneur.

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